Wednesday, October 14, 2009


Thomas Riggins

"The Case for God" is the new book by Karen Armstrong the popular best seller writer on religion. This is an evaluation of her case as based on a review by Ross Douthat in The New York Times Book Review Oct. 4, 2009.

Douthat thinks this is the right time for Armstrong's book now that the Bush era is over and the country is focused on health care and the economy (he neglects to mention the two wars still raging from the Bush era) rather than right wing religious issues such as creationism and sex education based on abstinence.

Douthat says the book is a good history of religious thought in the West and also "wraps a rebuke to the more militant sort of atheism"--i.e., Dawkins & Co. Armstrong wants to make three major points in her book. 1.) The idea of "God" put forth by the new atheists as well as literalists and fundamentalists is wrong headed. 2.) Her idea of "God" does not conflict with science. 3.) Her views on "God" are more faithful to the ancient traditions of Judaism, Islam and Christianity than are those of the conservation literalists of today. In fact she says it is the moving away from the old time religion towards literalism that is "one of the reasons why so many Western people find the concept of God so troublesome today."

Let's see what her argument is and if she can make her case. The pre-modern theologians (say the Fathers of the Church and even Thomas Aquinas) she says saw faith as a "practice" a set of beliefs not, she writes, "something that people thought but something they did." Well, this seems an odd thing to say. Christians have always fought over what CREED to uphold, calling each other heretics based on THOUGHT not practice. Burning at the stake was not a modern invention. So when Douthat says she holds that the old time religion was "a set of skills , rather than a list of unalterable teachings" I think she is just wrong. Persecuting heretics and weeding out wrong thoughts started with PAUL and has been with us ever since. And similar things can be said about other religions as well.

The conflict with science in modern time, she thinks, arose because theologians developed "a fatal case of science envy." How did this happen? Armstrong thought the religious thinkers became Deists in the tradition of Newton and William Paley (!), according to Douthat.

Impressed by the "natural theology" of the scientists Western Christian thinkers held "the natural laws that scientists had discovered in the universe were tangible demonstrations of God's providential care," Armstrong writes. This led the religious thinkers to give up their pre modern "mythic" and non literal approach and, as the reviewer puts it to adopt a "pseudo-scientific rigor." This meant "they had nowhere to turn when Darwin's theory of evolution arrived on the scene."

This is really revisionist history. Christianity and its leaders never adopted the Deism of Newton or Paley. Becoming literalists was just the opposite of the scientific approach. If they had been impressed by the "natural theology" of the Deists and they wanted to ape the scientists they would have rushed to adopt Darwinism and incorporate it into a scientific theology. They did just the opposite because this earlier pre-modern "mythic" form of religion based on practice not thought constricted by scripture is a figment of Armstrong's imagination. She is incorrect if she thinks Aquinas or Augustine would be "unfazed by the idea of evolution" as the reviewer puts it. They would have rejected the scientific theory of evolution and concocted some non scientific Bible based theory instead but they would never have accepted Darwin.

To avoid the fruitless arguments over religion versus science, Armstrong makes two recommendations. First, she writes to the atheists that there is "no use magisterially weighing up the teachings of religion to judge their truth or falsehood before embarking on a religious way of life. You will discover their truth--- or lack of it--- only if you translate these doctrines into ritual or ethical action." Well, this first one doesn't make any sense. How do you judge the "truth" of a ritual? And ethical "truths" are notoriously slippery and culture bound notions whose "truth" seems to depend on "feeling" more than on anything else. No atheist is likely to "embark" on a religious life style to discover religious "truths", especially when they already think there are no truths to be found. There are too many religions fighting not only among themselves but also internally with their own sects, as to make it seem a most unlikely prospect for an atheist.

Second, the fundamentalists and literalists are told to go back to the old time pre-modern religious outlook that recognized that "revealed truth was symbolic, that Scripture could not be interpreted literally.... [that] revelation was not an event that had happened once in the distant past but was an ongoing, creative process that required human ingenuity." This will go over like a lead balloon, especially with those who think revelation ended with Moses and a few Old Testament prophets, or with the New Testament, or the Koran. But atheists will agree that "human ingenuity" is the bases of revelation.

The reviewer also has doubts about Armstrong's views and mentions that rather than having her liberal outlook the old Christian sages [and others too] "were fiercely dogmatic." Some of them, Augustine for example, may not have been 100% Biblical dogmatists (with respect to Genesis for example) but still held literalist views as well (the Resurrection).

I have to conclude that Armstrong's God will have little appeal to most people who believe in religion-- especially since he is "mythic" and dependent on "human ingenuity." I think her case for God fails and the time one might spend in reading her book could be more profitably utilized in reading Spinoza.

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